According to many of the books I've read lately, here's what we can expect of our future on earth: truly rotten weather, massive starvation, inconceivable death tolls, abandoned shells of cities, genetic mutations beyond our imaginations, unspeakable violence in the streets, child slave labor, and poor personal hygiene. On the positive side, no one will have a cell phone or computer, and car traffic will be practically nonexistent. Still, the future, at least the future as detailed in current YA literature, is bleak, my friends, bleak indeed. Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker only adds to this decidedly ugly picture. That doesn't mean I don't like the book. It's quite good. It's just that I'm starting to think that today, 2010, is as good as it's going to get. Apparently, it's all downhill from here.
Nailer is a ship breaker on Bright Sands Beach along the Gulf Coast in a globally-warmed and resource-depleted future. He works with his light crew, scavenging the skeletons of old oil tankers for copper wire and metal scraps. Skinny kids, like Nailer, can fit in the crevices and ducts of the old ships, but are only valued by the crew bosses as long as they are small enough for the job. It's grueling, filthy work, but Nailer needs this job to survive. He lives in in a palm and bamboo shack with his father, Richard, who has been in a violent, drunken, and drugged-up haze since the death of Nailer's mother.
Just beyond Nailer's grim, bare beach, out in the blue of the ocean, he can see the sleek forms of wealthy clipper ships, luxury vessels which torture his imagination. That is, until the day that Nailer and his friend Pima stumble upon a storm-wrecked clipper filled with the kind of riches they call a "Lucky Strike." They think their troubles are over until they find the lone survivor of the wreck, the daughter of a shipping company owner. In their world filled with painful choices and few good outcomes, Nailer and Pima must decide: kill the girl and stake their claim, or help the girl who promises them riches beyond what they can comprehend.
Ship Breaker delivers plenty of action and suspense along with a heaping helping of violence. Nailer's confrontation with his father at the book's climax is both a nail-biter and a scene of primal savagery. The characters are not all fully realized, and Richard comes off as that brutal monster-father we've seen before. Still, Bacigalupi has done well here. Ship Breaker is really about the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Nailer faces that metaphoric fork in the road time and again, and he wrestles mightily with his decisions. Beyond Nailer's story is Bacigalupi's warning to all of us about the choices we're making with our world today. Be thoughful, he counsels, and seize this moment to take care of our planet. Don't stand idly by as our world deteriorates into a muddy, toxic, drowning pool. The whole of the future, the author tells us, is in the decisions we make right now. It's a powerful message. Hopefully, Ship Breaker is more cautionary tale than prophecy.